Building Great Cities Starts with Teaching Kids to Build

Image 1 “Okay,” I say looking over at my construction partner, “you ready?”

“Ready,” she says, giving her safety glasses one last nudge and shifting the electric jigsaw in her grip.

She is determined.  She is capable.  And she is six years old.

And just like that, she pulls the saw trigger, the blade whirs as we both help guide it, and the next chunk of board for the school picnic table we’re building is cut to size.  We high five as she hands me back the saw and then passes the glasses to the next kid in line.  Welcome to École George Jay Elementary’s extravaganza of making things happen, its 2016 Maker Faire.

Dream It, Design It, Do It

Filling both its gym and its sunny outdoor basketball court, the June 10, 2016 Maker Faire involved the whole school and its larger community to celebrate all the ways that people create the world around them. Sew, dig, tape, hammer, glue, cut, program, draw, knit, drill, connect, paint…. The list went on and on.

The day was the cap to the school’s first year of classes in its new MakerSpace.  Formerly just a regular classroom, the MakerSpace is now stocked with tables, tools and bins and bins of materials that over the course of each week get used by every class of kids at the school.

Over the past year, the students have used these mostly recycled materials to transform the usually separate academic areas of science, technology, engineering, math and art into a frenzy of integrated creativity.  With no two solutions the same, they build responses to design challenges set by MakerSpace teacher and George Jay Vice-principal Sunny Jun in collaboration with the school’s many like-minded classroom teachers.

Watching the parade of creations come out of MakerSpace over the past year, I’ve thought a lot about what a tremendous opportunity this has been for these elementary school students and what it means for our larger community and society.

Trying out the cardboard arcade game inventions built by students

Trying out the cardboard arcade game inventions built by elementary school students (Photo: Sunny Jun)

Kids figuring out how to meet the challenge of rescuing Rapunzel via zip line.

Kindergarten students figuring out how to meet the challenge of rescuing Rapunzel via zip line. (Photo: Sunny Jun)

Yes, the project challenges have been kid-friendly and fun: puppets and puppet theatres, vehicles to keep Humpty Dumpty safe, cardboard arcade games, boats that float, programmed micro robots, music videos starring invented musical instruments, and many, many others.

But what these projects have really been teaching is the basic process of dreaming, designing and doing that are fundamental to how we solve problems and shape cities, whether that be as citizens or professionals.

Even more so, these projects have been fostering how to listen and work together.  They have also been teaching the key truth that each of us is capable of imagining and manifesting change.

From MakerSpace to Maker Faire

My thoughts about the long term benefits of MakerSpace were taken to the next level when I got the chance to participate in the school-wide Maker Faire last week. For the Faire, Jun invited the kids, staff and the larger community to showcase all the things they build.


For students, the Maker Faire content was guided only by the challenge of “create something that can be used and that you are interested in.” Kids spent several weeks working in teams to figure out what they wanted to make and then researching, designing and building their ideas.

Along side the displays of the resulting student creations, model boat builders, programmers, crafters, the University of Victoria’s Science Venture members and many other adults displayed and talked about what they like to build.

Thanks to a grant through BC’s Industry Training Authority (ITA) and the help of teaching staff and parent volunteers, the day also included a chance for kids to try their hand at some of the trades.  That’s how I happened to be there with saws, hammers and a whole lot of lumber.

While my official trade might be transportation planner, carpentry is one of my passions.  I was excited to be one of the adults helping to showcase woodworking.  This wasn’t just because I think it’s great for kids to see that moms like noisy tools, too, but also because I felt lucky to grow up surrounded by people who encouraged me to build things when I was a kid.

Image 6Watching the steady stream of kids come by to work with me measuring and cutting wood for the picnic table or hang out nailing and screwing together scrap creations with Education Assistant Jean Crawford and her dad Glenn Danbrook, I couldn’t get over what a rewarding experience it was.

It also struck me how happy the kids were and how innate their (and our) desire to build is.  Sure, I was ready and willing to pass on information when I saw the need: here’s how to tighten the chuck on a drill or an easier way to pull out that bent nail; here’s how we’re going to make sure we’re safe when we use the saw.

But really, that’s just technique.  All the kids really needed to become builders was just the space and opportunity to do so and a belief that they were capable.

Taking it Further

Image 3

Teacher and Vice-principal Sunny Jun (centre) with some of the George Jay builders and their new picnic table. Over the course of two afternoons, about 45 kids each had an opportunity to cut or drill the boards for this table and put it together.  Materials for the project were generously made possible through a grant from the BC’s Industry Training Authority’s YES 2 IT youth program and the Cook St. Castle Building Centre.

Did my own adult path to a career manifesting change in cities start when I was a kid knocking together pieces of wood? I can’t trace a direct linear path from there to here.

However, I do know that the very best parts of the skills I use every day–problem solving with others and thinking of new ways to use existing things better–were there when I was ten and standing on a beach or in a backyard with my siblings and cousins and a hammer in my hand.

Which is not to say that cultivating building by kids requires lumber or a backyard.  Our cities are getting denser and that’s a good thing.

Yogurt containers, cardboard, string and a whole lot of tape can build amazing things, too.  AND, if we’re doing placemaking on a boulevard, consider how that four-year-old might also be part of the transformation.   Or if having a block party, maybe there’s space to also have a tub of wood or PVC pipe scraps for anyone there to invent with them.

The key thing is enabling the unfettered opportunity to think of something and make it happen. Whether kid or adult, there is no sense of power quite as potent as (re)learning you have the capacity to shape the world around you.

In whatever way we contribute to our communities–baker, grandparent, nurse, builder, social worker, engineer, volunteer–our communities benefit from the process and practice of listening, dreaming, designing and doing.  Both at home and at school, giving kids the opportunity to be a part of that practice from an early age is how we are going to meet challenges in our communities and make our cities even greater.

Want to learn more about MakerSpace and the Maker Faire? Check out the blogs by École George Jay Elementary’s Vice-principal Sunny Jun and teacher Rebecca Bathurst-Hunt.


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